Be the Change: Steve Wallace Starts North State kids off with Spanish

What do a machinist, a world traveler and a bus driver all have in common? Not much, perhaps, except that Steve Wallace can claim all the above titles in addition to his current day job as a first-grade teacher. Steve teaches at Tree of Life International Charter School, a newly-established kindergarten through fourth-grade school in Anderson, CA. Tree of Life is a dual immersion school, guiding its 96 students into fluency in English and Spanish. Since the school’s opening in August 2017, Steve has already become a beloved figure among students, parents and staff alike.

Steve’s wife, Deb Wallace, dreamed of melding her lifelong passion for Spanish with her many years of bilingual teaching to start a dual immersion school in the Redding area. Steve had also taught Spanish and English for 20 years, but had recently retired from education. He had returned to machining, a career he left in order to be more available to his family when the couple’s four children were young. Though supportive of his wife’s dreams, he did not anticipate becoming overly involved with the school.

Two weeks before the school’s opening, however, the first-grade teacher Deb had hired canceled the contract. Fresh out of options and already committed to the position of principal, Deb faced a gaping hole in her program. Like the hero in an action movie, Steve stepped in at just the right moment, agreeing to not only fill in the first-grade teacher position but also to drive a bus before and after school to make sure students without transportation could attend.

What motivated this sudden return to teaching? “I just stepped into a need. I obviously had the experience!” Steve says with a laugh. That experience makes Steve a treasure for kids and families, according to Chantel Olmedo and Avie Payne, presidents of the school’s Amigos Parents Club. “He isn’t trying to be someone he isn’t, push his authority as a teacher or impress the parents. Instead, his years of experience have made him very comfortable in his role as a teacher,” says Chantel. Avie agrees, “Steve always has his door open, which is super inviting and shows confidence as a teacher.”

Steve sees teaching at a dual immersion school as more than just a platform for imparting information. He describes the school as “building bridges between cultures.” His day-to-day teaching style provides kids with a safe, supportive, hands-on environment for learning another language and sampling different cultures. Before they met, both Steve and Deb traveled in South America. After they married, the couple served as missionaries in Santiago, Chile. Steve brings these international experiences to the classroom through song and dance. He and Deb lead songs in the classroom, and Avie says Steve “even sings and dances as he takes his kids out to lunch!” Chantel adds that Steve “gets down on the kids’ level and makes learning fun.”

Steve’s commitment to speaking only Spanish in the classroom makes all the difference for Spanish-learning students. “If kids know you in one language, they will speak to you in that language,” Steve explains. According to Avie and Chantel, most of Steve’s students do not even realize he speaks English.

In addition to cultivating a constructive environment for his students, Steve values developing personal relationships with parents. “Parents are trusting us with their kids, trusting their kids will learn a whole new language. I like to get to know parents, not just on a ‘how’s-your-kid’ level, but on a personal level as well.”

All of Steve’s efforts at Tree of Life International School reflect one of his mottos, which emphasizes being fully invested in the moment: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Steve encourages others that “change comes from the inside first, not from circumstances. You have to decide to get up and make the change, make an old dog do new tricks. That’s how I ended up teaching first grade – and it’s my favorite so far!” 

Want to know more about Tree of Life International? Call (530) 378-7040 to schedule an informational visit, or visit Interested parents may also attend an informational meeting on Saturday, March 10 (1:00-2:00 Spanish Presentation; 2:00-3:00 English Presentation). Childcare provided.

Jenna Christophersen
About Jenna Christophersen

Jenna Christophersen is a Chico native who loves her community and can never get quite enough of the arts. She supports fostering creativity in any venue, especially as a part of young people’s daily lives.


  1. Juan Carlos says:

    Preciosa escuela e ilusionante proyecto.La motivación que muestra Steve en este artículo es todo lo que unos padres o profesores puede desear. Curiosidad , motivación diaria, ilusión, mucho tesón ,cariño y atención a los alumn@s . ¡Os felicitoTree of Life International School! Sois el presente y seréis al mejor de los futuros para cualquier padre que busque una gran escuela. ¡ Me encanta vuestra escuela y filosofía y se que va a ser un gran modelo de escuela en California!

  2. sergio ortega says:

    I wish I could be a student of Mr. Wallace! So inspired by this article & ways of teaching. So much, so that I need to revisit my “Master Plan” & add “being fully invested in the moment” aspect of teaching! Thanks Steve, Thank you Deb, Love you all! Continue to inspire those you come in contact with! It’s contagious & needed! I’ll do my part also. Love Coach Ortega!

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